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Tips for baking and cooking your way through the cream cheese shortage

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Shortages and supply-chain issues have become more of a rule than an exception of late, and most recently, at least in the food world, the buzz has been about cream cheese. Particularly Philadelphia cream cheese, that staple of bagel shops and cheesecakes.

As my colleague Marisa Iati reported, “Which hypothesized factors are contributing to the tangy dairy product’s supply issues remains uncertain.” So far, the impact seems to be most affecting New York bagel shops and their schmears, as well as at least one large-scale producer, the restaurant chain and cheesecake maker Junior’s.

To stave off potential shortages on the consumer level or, uh, use this moment as a marketing tool, Philadelphia manufacturer Kraft announced it would offer a limited number of $20 reimbursements to people who make or buy a non-cheesecake dessert during the holiday season.

The multistep process, hindered at least temporarily by website issues Friday, involves making a reservation, buying a dessert between now and Dec. 24 and then redeeming your reservation over a week-long period beginning Dec. 28 “for your chance to receive a $20 digital reward.” Easier said than done! Reservations disappeared rapidly Friday and probably will Saturday, as well.

Supply-chain issues and a cyberattack: Why your bagel’s cream cheese might be spread a little thin

So far, I’ve not yet encountered bare shelves at the store, but here and there we’ve heard from readers struggling to find cream cheese. Here are some things to keep in mind if you find yourself in that situation.

What is cream cheese. You’re probably familiar with this staple, which “The New Food Lover’s Companion” by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst describes as soft, spreadable and mildly tangy. Cream cheese is made from cow’s milk and is unripened. Often it contains added stabilizers such as carrageenan, guar gum and xanthan gum. The flavor and texture make cream cheese a go-to in a variety of sweet and savory dishes, cooked or uncooked.

Use cream cheese in cookies, ice cream and savory recipes, too, to add tang and richness

By law, “The New Food Lover’s Companion” states, cream cheese must contain at least 33 percent milk fat and not more than 55 percent moisture. That’s important to keep in mind, because many of the other dairy-oriented swaps you may consider in your recipes will differ in fat and water content, says cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum. For example, she says, cream cheese has half the fat of butter. Butter, meanwhile, has much less water, at about 15 to 20 percent, compared with the almost half present in cream cheese.

How to substitute. When making substitutions, it’s almost impossible to replicate the intended result with a one-to-one swap, especially without making other adjustments to the recipe. Keep in mind whether your desired replacement is drier or wetter than cream cheese. Is it mellower or tangier? Saltier? Walk yourself through the differences before you proceed. That being said, consider these scenarios for swaps:

  • Schmears and spreads: Lots of options here. Mascarpone, ricotta, goat cheese and your preferred vegan cream cheese will all work in a pinch on top of your bagel or toast. Prefer to make your own cream cheese to spread? You’ll find recipes out there, including this one from Smitten Kitchen.
  • No-bake dishes: Cream cheese commonly shows up in dips or no-bake desserts. Sour cream, creme fraiche, mascarpone and Greek yogurt are all fair game, though all will be somewhat looser than cream cheese. This is where goat cheese (chevre) can also shine. A combination of several of these ingredients may get you close to your desired result, too.
  • Fillings: Cream-cheese-stuffed muffins, breads and cookies are pretty common, and I’d take goat cheese as a great option. You could beat it with a little heavy cream to make it a bit more spreadable and soft, adding a pinch of sugar if you want to tamp down the tanginess slightly.
  • Baking: This is by far the hardest place to try substituting, and you may be best served by changing recipes (see below). “If I were absolutely forced to replace cream cheese in large quantity, I would probably start with half the weight in butter for the fat content and then add dry milk powder or maybe condensed milk to soften it,” Beranbaum says. “Milk powder is useful also for creating smoothness of texture.” Still, given the stabilizers in cream cheese, it’s “tricky,” she says. In baking, be wary of lower-fat or nonfat options that may not taste or perform right, Beranbaum says.

Or just find a different recipe. Don’t feel you have to jump through hoops to replace cream cheese in a recipe, especially if the results are not guaranteed. Pivoting to a different option is not a sign of defeat; it’s often the smartest move, particularly in baking. If you are looking at a cream cheese pie crust recipe — one of Beranbaum’s specialties — you can always switch to an all-butter crust. Another option Beranbaum suggests is pâte sucree, which is more like a cookie or shortbread but no less delicious. You’ll find that style crust in my colleague Olga Massov’s Whole Lemon Tart, as well as this Press-In Cookie Pie Crust.

A guide to baking substitutions for flour, sugar, yeast and more

And rather than trying to replace cream cheese in cheesecake, where it is so integral, go ahead and find a recipe that doesn’t call for it at all. In our archives, you’ll find options using goat cheese, mascarpone and mascarpone with creme fraiche. Ricotta cheesecake is another possibility.

Cream cheese frostings can easily be replaced with American-style buttercream. To replace some of the tangy flavor, try incorporating a bit of buttermilk powder, a tip I picked up from an America’s Test Kitchen carrot cake recipe (which does also have cream cheese).